There is one more lesson which God teaches Adam in his solitude. “Then Yahweh God gave the man this admonition, ‘You may eat indeed of all the trees in the garden. Nevertheless of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you are not to eat, for on the day you eat of it you shall most surely die.’ ” The tree here is a representation of the greatest gift which humankind has been given: the gift of free will. At first glance, we might think that there is something almost arbitrary, or unjust, about God’s command. Surely it’s not reasonable to condemn the entire human race to suffering and death just because our first parents chewed some unlawful figs. Yet John Paul II draws our attention to the fact that the account of Genesis 2 is mythical.
By mythical, he doesn’t mean that it’s untrue. Science has created an idea of myth as something that is opposed to fact, so that people often speak dismissively of myths as pre-scientific nonsense. The presumption is that something like the story of Persephone and Demeter is just a rather primitive and silly explanation for the seasons – one that has been superseded by our “superior” knowledge of planetary orbits. To think of the myth in this way is to miss the fact that both the characters in the myth, and the natural phenomenon which the myth explains, are just manifestations of the same Truth. The cold infertility of winter is a symbol of Persephone’s descent into the underworld, not visa verse. The actual significance of the myth is contained in the image of the weeping mother, the sorrow which blights the entire world, the single pomegranate seed that holds youth and beauty captive in death, the desire of Hades to lay claim to the daughter of the fertile earth, the return of life from the grave. These themes are universal, and they reveal something about human nature and the nature of reality that is actually more True than the fact that gravitational attraction causes the earth to circle the sun. Myth is therefore a form of revelation: it uses symbol, archetype, and images to express, in extremely compact form, realities which science cannot even begin to grapple with.
The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is a mythical revelation of the mystery of moral freedom. This is not to say that there wasn’t a literal, physical tree hanging with forbidden apples. Just as the mythical content of the death and rebirth of God is made manifest through the actual Cross, made of wood and nails, on which the real human body of Jesus hung and bled, there may well have been a juicy peach whose damning juices dribbled down Eve’s chin. But this is secondary. The important thing is that when Adam beholds the tree, he understands that he is able to make a choice: whereas all other things in the material world give glory to God simply by existing, Adam must give glory to God through a free response of his heart.
All other beings could simply be summoned into existence. God said “Let there be maples,” and Lo! There were maples. God said, “Let there sunfish,” and sunfish filled the sea. Yet when God went to create human beings, there had to be a process, for man is a creature which must choose to become itself. The first stage of this becoming takes place in solitude: the human being begins by knowing him or herself. Yet this knowledge is incomplete: the individual self is totally isolated. His thoughts are only his own. His speech rings out through the clearings of the garden, and is understood by no one. His choices affect only himself.
God sees that this is “not good,” and so He must make something more.
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